By JOHN MARSHALL
AP Basketball Writer
This college basketball season feels like an extension of the last one, the coronavirus leaving pauses, cancellations and postponements in its wake.
A beacon of basketball brilliance has risen from the ashes: two of the nation’s best mid-majors squaring off in a junior college gym.
Struggling to find opponents amid the coronavirus chaos, San Francisco and Loyola Chicago decided to meet in the middle. The Dons and Ramblers are set to play Thursday in Salt Lake City, an unexpected nonconference mid-major pop-up game that had San Francisco coach Todd Golden so giddy he called on support from a rival.
“We would love any @BYUMBB fans in the Salt Lake area to come support the @USFDonsMBB on Thursday at 12noon Mtn Time!!,” Golden tweeted Wednesday. “A win for the @USFDonsMBB would be GREAT for the Cougs and @WCChoops!! You can even wear Blue!!”
The college basketball season got off to such a great start, a sense of normalcy returning to the hardwood.
The omnipresence of omicron veered it back onto a familiar, unfortunate path. Starting and stopping has returned.
Dozens of teams have been forced into coronavirus pauses. More than 620 men’s and women’s games have been postponed or canceled, some within an hour of tip time.
Scheduling has turned into a logistical nightmare. Replacement and rescheduled games are getting replaced and rescheduled.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose team hasn’t played since Dec. 11, joked he’d play the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers just to get a game in.
The Ramblers and Dons have not been immune.
Chicago Loyola hasn’t played since beating Vanderbilt on Dec. 10, thanks to a mix of opponent coronavirus pauses and its own before Christmas. The Ramblers had their sixth game of the season shelved when Illinois State had to bow out of Wednesday’s game due to COVID-19 protocols.
San Francisco hasn’t been hit as hard but had West Coast Conference games against Saint Mary’s and No. 4 Gonzaga postponed in the past week.
The scramble to find a game landed them in Salt Lake City.
Barring more issues, San Francisco and Loyola Chicago will meet at Salt Lake Community College’s Lifetime Activities Center-Bruin Arena. The 5,000-seat gym is home to Bruins basketball and the Salt Lake City Stars, the Utah Jazz’s G League affiliate.
The fans, even those from BYU, will be in for a treat.
San Francisco (13-1) opened the season with 10 straight wins and has its best nonconference record since opening the 1976-77 season with 26 straight wins. The Dons duo of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz make up one of the nation’s most dynamic backcourts, combining for nearly 29 points per game.
Loyola Chicago (9-2) became a household hoops name with its improbable run to the 2018 Final Four with chaplain/fan favorite Sister Jean in tow. The Ramblers have a new coach in Drew Valentine this season, but are still knocking down Goliaths.
Loyola Chicago has beaten Arizona State, DePaul and Vanderbilt so far, the first time it’s had multiple regular-season wins over Power 5 teams since 1991-92.
Hoops happenstance brought on by a pandemic is bringing them together in a game that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.
“I probably won’t know that we’re playing a game officially until tipoff,” Ramblers guard Lucas Williamson told reporters this week. “So I don’t want to jinx it. I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re going to play the game, but we’re going to prepare like we’re playing.”
College basketball fans all over are hoping they do.
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